Why taking a step back matters
Working with top executives has taught me that most are intensely focused on the here and now — and rightfully so. They need to keep the lights on, everyone employed and customers and shareholders happy. This focus often gets translated into OKRs (Objectives and Key Results)or KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to drive monthly or quarterly revenue figures or quarterly earnings.
In the digital world of clicks and likes, subscribers and followers, the focus is also on keeping the content generation in the here and now.
Much like in the old days when students had to come up to the blackboard to write down their answers, we’re at times too close to see the forest for the trees. Executives are pulled into the day-to-day rut of keeping things humming and end up being too close to the problem at hand.
However, it is imperative to also pull away from the blackboard, get out of the weeds of the day-to-day, and level up to get the long view. Getting up to 30,000 feet helps with seeing the bigger picture.
But what if a 30,000-foot elevation is not enough? What if we need to take an even bigger step back to get the long view? What if we need to take a good look at where we have come from and where we are going? What if we are focusing on the wrong things? What if it isn’t about making money or having success as we’ve always defined it? What if it is actually about our survival as a species?
When systems are challenged, the long view is imperative
1. Understand what’s happening
No one operates in a vacuum. No person, no family, no team, no organization, and no government. Not even the human species is functioning in a vacuum. We are living in a symbiotic relationship with other species, flora and fauna, even with other planets in the universe. But we are so focused on what’s right in front of us, often getting frustrated by what’s not working, that we forget to take a step back when stepping back would give us clarity as to what is really going on. Without clarity there is no way to make sustainable progress.
2. Gain perspective
Looking at situations from different vantage points provides perspective. It helps us make sense of what is going on. Rather than ruminating in our own heads, we have an opportunity to look at issues from different angles. Think of it as switching from a two-dimensional image to a three-dimensional image. The informational value is greatly increased.
3. Set proper direction
Only with clarity on the current situation and enough varying perspectives can we begin to form an opinion about where we need to go, individually and collectively. The long view sets us on a meaningful path forward.
How to get the long view
To foster long-term thinking, The Long Now Foundation encourages imagination at the timescale of civilizations. Imagine what life was like 10,000 years ago and what it might be like 10,000 years from now. It offers a community of long-term thinkers engaged in long-term projects.
Another way to gain a long view is by time traveling in shorter spurts. Let’s say you have a product, i.e. the iPhone, in your pocket. Could you describe what it is and how it works today, in 1950, in 1600? The story would be markedly different. Now what about if you fast forward to 2050 or 2100? Would the product still exist? Would it be useful? What would it have morphed into?
As you can see, there is an opportunity to step back from the blackboard, from being too close, from being in the problem rather than looking at the problem or working on the problem.
Being able to take the long view is a trait of sustainable leadership. We are here on earth, alive, only for a speck of time. But our presence here matters. Every bee in a beehive contributes to the production of honey. Every cog in the wheel makes it turn. Every voice, every action, every thought matters to the outcome. We don’t know what that outcome will be, but wouldn’t it be valuable to put our best foot forward and have the impact that we want to have to assure long-term survival?
Ultimately, what else matters?